After your pastor suggests to your parents you needs an exorcism, or must undergo corrective rape to be cured of homosexuality, the last place you might seek help from is another church.
However, that’s where some LGBTI asylum seekers in the US are turning. The LGBT Asylum Task Force in Worcester, Massachusetts is a ministry of the Hadwen Park Congregational Church. It launched around ten years ago.
The Task Force helps those wishing to escape persecution and claim asylum in the United States. It aids with food and accommodation, including offering temporary housing. It also puts asylum seekers in touch with pro-bono legal advice.
On top of this, it offers support and friendship, and the vital message that there is nothing wrong with being LGBTI. It’s a message some of those seeking help have never heard before.
The church’s senior minister is Pastor Judith Hanlon. Via Skype call, she explains how the Task Force came into being. Hadwen Park, part of the United Church of Christ, has long been an LGBTI inclusive place of worship.
Hanlon publicly spoke out in favor of equal marriage when it became an issue in the US. This brought her local media attention.
‘I was called lots of bad names by a lot of religious folk, but I got involved with equal marriage because I realized how religious abuse is a part of everything. In places like Uganda, it’s all “God says you’re evil!”
‘Not easy to claim asylum’
Her public profile led to her being approached by an attorney handling an asylum claim for a gay man.
‘It’s not easy to claim asylum,’ says Hanlon. ‘It’s very difficult. For example, if you have a wound, you have to have a doctor say they believe it is a torture wound, and that it is perhaps occurred on the day you said it did.
‘So this man was very emotional and his attorney said, “Linford, you’re going to have to put together a case – you got to stop crying.” And he said, “I don’t have a place to live. I don’t have any food, and I think God hates me.”
‘That’s how we started. This wonderful Jewish attorney remembered my face in the paper and knew I was a Christian, and she knew Linford was a Christian. She called me, and she said “I can’t help with that sort of thing.”
‘That started everything. He came to the church. The church welcomed him, he got friends. And then once we got a website up, they came like crazy.’
Since that time, the Task Force has helped around 200 people claim asylum. Hanlon says they a near 100% success rate for those who it helps through the entire process.
Fleeing from Jamaica
One of those it is currently helping is Alford Green. Originally from Jamaica, Green came to the US in 2008 as a student. After living in the US for a few years, he realized he didn’t wish to go back.
Gay sex is illegal in Jamaica and punishable with life imprisonment. Mob violence against LGBTI people remains common.
‘Basically, you’re not free,’ says Green. ‘You don’t have the freedom of going to the movies and hanging out in your relationship. That can’t exist between two men without wondering if others are going to do stuff to you.
‘Going back to Jamaica and back into the closet and watching my every move to ensure what I was doing didn’t give me away, I couldn’t do that.
‘You’re talking about communities ganging up and coming after you. You’re talking about a consistent failure to protect ordinary citizens, whether it be the police or public defender. No-one really cares about LGBTQ people or and their experiences.’
‘Often people are just not found anymore,’ adds Hanlon. ‘They’re chased by mobs. I heard one horrible story from Jamaica, where a mob chased somebody into the ocean and they just swam into the ocean because they chose drowning rather than be attacked by the mob, so it’s a life and death situation.’
Working for the LGBT Task Force
Green submitted his asylum claim in 2016 with the help of the Task Force. He also joined the church. When the opportunity came up to take a more active role in the Task Force, as Director, he jumped at it. He was recently awarded the Human Rights Commission’s 2019 Eleanor Hawley Human Rights Award for his work.
He’s still awaiting a final decision on his asylum claim.
It may be important to highlight the difference between refugees and asylum seekers. Refugees are those applying to come to the US from abroad, often from war zones or other areas of conflict.
Asylum seekers are those applying to stay in the US at a border crossing or from within the US. Many have come to the US on student visas or business visas. They claim asylum if they fear returning to their home country.
Proving persecution is challenging. Hanlon says you stand a far better chance if you’re escaping a country where gay sex remains illegal.
Many of the asylum cases the Task Force has helped come from Jamaica. Or African countries such as Uganda and Kenya, or Middle East countries such as Saudi Arabia, to name a few.
The Task Force is limited to only helping people already in the US. They cannot help people to physically escape their home countries.
‘It’s hard,’ concedes Green. ‘An individual might not be able to get a visa to come to the US to seek asylum. For those individuals, what I suggest is trying to find some neighboring country they might be able to get to at least find some sort of relative safety.’
This includes being stuck in countries such as Syria or Chechnya. The latter has made headlines in recent months for its extreme persecution of LGBTI people.
The wait for authorities to process cases
Most pending immigration cases in the US take just over two years, and the wait is getting longer.
In 2016, 20,455 individuals were granted asylum: around 28% of the 73,081 cases considered. It makes the Task Force’s success rate impressive. Hanlon believes the community and support network they can offer people helps with this.
‘Alford [Green] writes an affidavit saying he believes they are gay and faces danger if they return to their home country,’ says Hanlon.‘I write an affidavit, as a white, Christian grandmother, saying I’ve done private counselling with them, that they are a part of the church, that they have many friends, that they are gay, and so on. I speak with them about the things they have to prove.
‘They get affidavits from other church members, and so they have a whole sense of support around them. A lot of people who apply for asylum simply don’t have that. But one of the things that immigration may look for is that you have a community.
Offering support and community to all
Hanlon also points out that despite its affiliation with a church, they don’t force their beliefs on anyone.
‘They can be a member of the church. But I have Muslims who I pray with, saying an interfaith prayer. They have no clerics that they can go to, but they’re welcome to come to church and they do. We don’t make them Christian. We welcome anybody.’
‘There are atheists as well,’ adds Green.
‘The surprising thing is they keep their faith,’ says Hanlon. ‘Priests have told parents to have corrective gang rape on their daughters. Pastors!’ she says, incredulous.
‘I think I would be an atheist if that happened to me!
‘So the religious abuse component is a big part of what we do. We have a welcoming statement that says, “No matter who you are, you’re welcome here, gay, straight, black, white, disabled or able-bodied…” and they cry when they hear it.
‘So being a part of the church as a Christian is the component of healing that I don’t think happens in government agencies or NGOs.’
‘We had one gentleman from Uganda,’ says Hanlon. ‘He had 6 Clover Street, our address, on a piece of paper. He got on the airplane, he came to Boston, he got into Worcester and he sat at the church steps waiting. And he was there because this was the place he wanted to get to.
‘It’s an amazing thing. We’re blown away by it.
‘We don’t offer guarantees to anybody,’ says Hanlon. ‘We don’t sponsor anyone, and we tell them that up front, but we tell them that we will be their community. And I think that’s why we’re winning.’
Support the Gay Star News Chechnya Crisis Appeal
Gay Star News is currently raising awareness and funds to help LGBT people escape Chechnya. As well as using our investigative journalism to keep you informed about what’s happening on-the-ground as it happens; we’re inviting you to make a difference today by donating to the Chechyna Crisis Appeal.
Every dollar, euro and pound you give will help evacuate LGBTI people in the most danger. And to pressure the Chechen authorities to stop this persecution.
Please also share our appeal with your followers, friends and family; ensuring we raise awareness and apply pressure to permanently end this abuse.